In The Retreat from Moscow, the tough and beautiful play by William Nicholson that brings Eileen Atkins back to Broadway, a woman named Alice (Ms. Atkins) has been working on the Lost Love section of her personal anthology of great English poetry, some of it well known, some not, when her husband Edward (John Lithgow), a professor of Religious Studies, breaks the news that he's walking out on their 33 years of marriage. He has met another woman who is nicer to him. Sandbagged emotionally between his parents, and not liking it one bit, is their 32-year-old son Jamie (Ben Chaplin), who tries with dubious success to adhere to his stated position of "just keeping well out of the line of fire."
The central poem in the whole work is Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" (which foreshadowed World War I by 47 years, WW II by 72 years and 9/11/01 by 134 years). "Just that last line," said Eileen Atkins on a sunny Saturday morning in New York as rehearsals were about to get under way toward an October opening at the Booth. "'Ah, love, let us be true to one another . . .' I'll tell you something extraordinary," Ms. Atkins said. "I was asked some time ago to pick a poem for a book for refugees, and I picked 'Dover Beach.' It's been one of my favorites since childhood. Though, if there's one thing I hate, it's people who recite."
She was asked if she herself could relate to a woman being ditched.
"Oh, sure," said the twice-married actress ("Gosford Park," "The Hours")/playwright(Vita and Virginia)/screenwriter ("Mrs. Dalloway")/co-creator (with Jean Marsh, of "Upstairs, Downstairs"), who at this writing has been wed to producer Bill Shepherd for 26 years. "But I can relate to a murderer as well," she said cheerily. "I can relate to anyone. I'm a naturally vile person. Horrible."
Second thought: "I hope I'm human." Third thought: "I mean, I'm as old as" — she searched for the name of the woman she'd be playing — "as old as Alice, but I still have a husband. When my girlfriends of the past used to say, 'Oh, I've been left but I don't mind,' then I'd think: You can't have felt passion. That's a silly thing to boast about. And I've been left. And I've left. Shakespeare said it: 'Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.'"
No, she's had no children.
"Want a complicated story? My first husband couldn't have children. We had an amicable divorce. Then he married again, and miraculously he had one child, and I'm the godmother, and that child is called James and now is the same age, 32, as the son, Jamie, in this play."
Fourth thought from Cockney-born Dame Eileen Atkins, who has worked at what she does since being thrust by her mother into dancing class at age 3, then hoofing it, and hating it, at workmen's clubs until age 12:
"Where I live now, right on the river [Thames], it's full of ladies dying off who were kept by their husbands and never worked. I get a lot of knocking on the door: 'Coffee, Eileen?' I always give them a lecture — this is the vile part of me — 'Pull yourself together and do something.' My friends say that's my favorite phrase. So I'd be slightly contemptuous of my character in this play if she didn't pull herself together and do something. If your life totally revolves around your husband, that's terrible."
With a burst of laughter: "When Bill Shepherd asked me to marry him, I said, 'I don't do shirts, I don't do breakfast, and I go to America whenever I want.'" Two beats. "I once had an affair with Edward Fox. He said, 'I'll only marry you if you give up going to America.' I said, 'I'm off to America next month.'"
So now she's once again in America — in a drama that, through a series of misunderstandings, playwright Nicholson, who is married to Virginia Woolf's great niece, was at first led to believe Ms. Atkins didn't like. Quite the opposite — though it is, she affirms, very close to the bone (his bone). She wouldn't mind if, at the Booth, it ran straight through without intermission (probably won't). "I mean, look at Long Day's Journey. At least with this play, if it went straight through, we'd all be in a restaurant by 10:00." Which is more than any of Napoleon's men could look forward to during the retreat from Moscow — as Alice, out there in the snow, could more than tell you.